Nurses’ union boss Paul Pace has broken his silence over claims he misappropriated public funds, saying he believed he was “hounded” over “human errors” amounting to just €215 in his overtime sheets.
Pace appeared before the Public Service Commission (PSC) this week after having previously been tried by a specifically appointed disciplinary board over charges of misappropriation of public funds when he requested payment for work not carried out.
He was suspended from work for five days and ordered to refund the money.
An inquiring board had found inconsistencies in Pace’s overtime statements over the past years, with requests for overtime in 12 instances in February and March last year.
Pace told the board that those hours – around 12 hours in total – were claimed in error and offered to refund the payment which the board calculated at €215.38.
The fact-finding board’s report, which Times of Malta has seen, established €215.38 as the total overpayment and the PSC, in its judgement concerning the case, ordered Pace to repay that amount.
But sources told Times of Malta that the police Financial Crimes Investigations Department has started an investigation into the case after receiving a complaint from the health ministry.
They tried to make a mountain out of a molehill and found a few mistakes- MUMN president Paul Pace
The fact-finding board appointed to investigate Pace had been set up in April after Labour Party political pundit Manuel Cuschieri alleged that the Malta Union of Midwives and Nurses (MUMN) president requested several hours of overtime at his workplace when he was actually on holiday in Egypt.
Pace is a charge nurse with specialisation in infection control at Mount Carmel Hospital.
The board heard Pace give a breakdown of work carried out during his Egypt holiday when he had to deal with two COVID outbreaks at hospital and other incidents requiring patient segregation, which he coordinated from abroad as the responsible infection control nurse.
All overtime claims between February 16 and 27 were backed up with evidence of work carried out and approved by management, the board heard.
12 discrepancies found, ‘errors happen’
The board, however, found 12 discrepancies which Pace put down to a “human error”.
“Payroll mistakes happen everywhere. There are times when we are not paid in full and that is rectified. There was a time when I received my salary twice, so I refunded the extra payment. These errors happen. The disciplinary board accepted my plea that these were simple human errors and that none of this was done in bad faith,” Pace told Times of Malta.
Pace said he had no clue where the other figures being mentioned by, among others, former PN MP Jason Azzopardi, who is claiming that the figure was close to €90,000.
“Even if I was at work around the clock, I would never rack up an overtime bill of €90,000,” he said.
Azzopardi described the saga as a “Castille cover-up”. He also said that the authorities were heavy-handed with those who committed even the slightest misappropriation but were treating Pace with silk gloves.
In its decision, the PSC criticised the decades-old practice of sending overtime declarations straight to the human resources department and then relaying them to the accounts department, without anyone checking, verifying or actually questioning them.
The PSC said the system lacked proper checks and balances and suggested that this is rectified by introducing a system that actually verifies overtime being claimed, not only by Pace but by all staff members.
‘Pace should still face the music for his actions’
The commission, chaired by permanent secretary in the justice ministry, Johann Galea, with another permanent secretary in the education ministry, Joyce Dimech, and senior government official Mary Scicluna as members, said it did not feel that the case merited Pace’s dismissal. It noted Pace’s early admission but still felt that Pace should still face the music for his actions.
The board’s recommended punishment of three days suspension from work and the forfeiture of his increment for a year was upheld by the PSC this week. However, this changed to five days suspension after it emerged that he was not entitled to an increment due to the number of years of service. It also ordered this the disciplinary action is registered in his personal work file for 12 months.
Cuschieri had first made the claims about the MUMN boss on his show Linja Diretta on Smash TV and threatened to speak more about the issue if it was not investigated.
The allegations had surfaced at the same time the MUMN was at loggerheads with the health ministry over nurses’ working conditions.
Just two days before Cuschieri’s radio programme, Pace had suspended a series of directives to nurses at health centres and at the Gozo General Hospital.
The directives were part of a widespread industrial action that the union launched in March, claiming there was no money for nurses as talks on a new collective agreement stalled.
‘I was targeted because of my position’
Pace believes that he was unfairly targeted due to his position in the nurses’ union. “It is evident that I was targeted because of my position. They tried to make a mountain out of a molehill and found a few mistakes,” he said.
Asked why he had decided to admit to the charges, Pace said that he was wanted closure. “I’ve been attacked since April. I do not want anyone to attack the union, especially those who have a political agenda or use me to attack the government. I admitted because I wanted this saga to end soonest and did not want it to become a political ball game,” he said.
“I have absolutely no doubt that nothing of this would have happened had we not been in the middle of difficult negotiations over the new collective agreement for nurses and midwives,” he added.
In the letter to the disciplinary board, Pace’s lawyer, Chris Cilia, wrote that “although [Pace] was not morally guilty of any wrongdoing” it was “in the greater interest of all involved that the matter is brought to an expeditious closure”.
In the letter, Cilia said Pace was “prepared to refund any monies which, although morally due to him, may not be legally due”.
Pace has also filed a judicial protest demanding a probe into how the disciplinary action against him had been leaked to Cuschieri and Times of Malta.